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Why Bill Gates is the largest owner of private farmland in the United States

Bill Gates may be a tech billionaire, but he and his divorcing wife Melinda French Gates are also two of the largest owners of private farmland in the United States.

Recent reports detailing the extent of the Gates’ land ownership have drawn criticism from some conservationists and farmers, who say there appears to be a contradiction between his public environmental advocacy and his personal investment strategy.

Others have speculated that farmland purchases could be part of the billionaire’s overall climate efforts. Bill Gates said there was no connection, anyway. But the new details about the purchases – and the discussion surrounding them – are a reminder that billionaires can store their enormous wealth in all kinds of unexpected places, and that there can often be a tension between their personal investments and their philanthropic actions. more publicized. job.

On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the Gates had acquired more than 269,000 acres of farm in the United States in the past 10 years. These purchases, made with the help of Washington-based Cascade Investment and a number of shell companies, include farmland in nearly 20 states that grow vegetables such as carrots, soybeans and potatoes. earth (some of which end up in McDonald’s fries). The details come after the agricultural newspaper The Land Report reported in January that the tech billionaire and his wife were the main owners of private farmland in the country. An NBC News analysis also identified the Gates as the largest owner of farmland in the United States.

Almost 300,000 acres is a lot of land for a family or an individual, but it’s still only a small part of the estimated 911 million acres of farmland in the United States. While Gates appears to be one of the largest owners of private farmland in the country, he is far from alone in wanting to incorporate farmland into his investment strategy.

As Mother Jones recently reported, other large financial firms have also sought to purchase farmland, although they are not involved in day-to-day farming operations. Land Report, the outlet that named Gates the largest private farm owner, notes several other families who claim more than 100,000 acres. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that about 30 percent of US farmland is leased by landlords who are not involved in agriculture, like Bill Gates.

All this to say that it should come as no surprise that Bill Gates, one of the richest people in the world, makes investments to serve his own financial interests.

“It’s a good investment,” said Johnathan Hladik, farmer and policy director for the Center on Rural Affairs. “It’s smart, it’s stable, and especially over the past two decades, it seems to be increasing.”

Still, Gates’ land ownership has drawn special attention because the billionaire has tried to make a name for himself in climate advocacy. Gates is currently promoting a book on the subject and has positioned himself, along with the Gates Foundation, as a leader in what the future of agriculture should look like, especially when it comes to technology.

Georgian farmer and conservationist John Quarterman told NBC that while he expected Gates to encourage more sustainable practices after he bought farmland nearby, his acquisition of that land didn’t not much changed. And the National Farmers Union has suggested that the growing number of non-farm owners like Gates buying farmland – and leasing it out – could lead to practices that harm the environment: Short-term farmers who rent land are less. likely to take a long time. long-term conservation measures, the organization argues, and non-farmer owners do not have the experience to “understand the importance of protecting natural resources”.

Others have argued the opposite: that Gates’ massive investment in farmland could have a direct link to his other climate efforts. Newsweek, for example, recently suggested that his land ownership “may be tied to its investments in agricultural developments related to climate change and Impossible Foods,” although it doesn’t offer much support for that premise.

While Bill Gates has previously attempted to separate his Gates Foundation climate work from his private investments, Cascade Investment has defended its sustainability record.

Responding to criticism, a spokesperson for Cascade Investment pointed out that it has enrolled all of its farmland in a program of Leading Harvest, a non-profit organization that publishes sustainability standards focused on biodiversity, conservation and the grounds. “Cascade plans to continue to assess and implement new initiatives that will improve the overall sustainability of its farmland portfolio,” the spokesperson told Recode.

More generally, Gates and other wealthy buyers of farmland have also been criticized for contributing to the concentration of land ownership. Because they can usually bid higher than what local farmers can afford, fewer people end up owning their own farmland. As Nick Estes, University of New Mexico professor for the Guardian wrote in April, this is translating “into more pressure for monocultures and more intensive industrial farming techniques to generate better income. While indigenous peoples and small farmers “are more careful with the use of land.”

The issues at stake go beyond the plots of land Bill Gates bought. “People tend to either look for the story of salvation – he does this to save the planet – or they look the other way around – you know, he’s just another greedy landowner,” said Bruce Sherrick, professor of agriculture at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, Recode told Recode. Sherrick, who sits on the Leading Harvest board of directors, says Gates-owned farms are taking positive action by following Leading Harvest standards.

Gates himself has made a point of differentiating his climate advocacy and investments. In a Reddit AMA in March, the billionaire appeared to be trying to separate his climate advocacy from his personal investments when asked about his land wealth. “My investment group chose to do it. It is not linked to the climate. The agricultural sector is important, ”he said in the post, before adding a more general comment on deforestation and biofuels.

But whatever Gates may wish, many observers can’t quite separate the two things. For them, Bill Gates the environmentalist is also Bill Gates the owner of commercial farmland, and they believe the two roles are related even though Gates does not see them as such.

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